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America's 'Justice' System is Failing Everyone But the Rich — They're the Only Ones Who Can Afford Legal Representation

We don’t need fewer lawyers. We need cheaper ones — Unable to afford representation, more Americans are going to court alone, and they're losing.

Photo by Pop Culture Geek.


By Martha Bergmark
In 2014, a Louisiana woman, J., landed in court after a dispute with her landlord over a $25 parking fee. J., 52, was suffering from cancer and did not have an attorney. The court ruled against her, and ordered her to vacate her home within 24 hours.

J.’s case, which was later taken on by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, sounds extreme, but for someone who can’t afford legal counsel, the outcome isn’t surprising. The sad reality is that many Americans facing the loss of a home, family or livelihood are going it alone in civil court, and they’re losing.

In well over two thirds of critical cases in America’s civil courts, people appear without a lawyer, even though the stakes are often just as high as in criminal proceedings. Many people suffer crushing losses in court not because they’ve done something wrong, but simply because they don’t have legal help.

The future of the legal profession is unclear. Student loan debt for law graduates now averages $84,000 for public law schools and $122,000 for private law schools, reflecting the dramatic rise in the cost of attending law school in the past three decades. Despite the growing costs for students, long-term job prospects have become less certain. One study found that among 2010 law school graduates, 20 percent hold jobs that don’t require a law degree. Only 40 percent are employed by law firms, where the financial returns are highest.

Some say that the recent decline in law school enrollment simply marks a natural correction in the legal industry, because law schools are producing more lawyers than the country needs. But the latest studies, and J.’s story, show the opposite: Americans need legal help more than ever.

Rather than a shortage of people who need lawyers, what we are seeing is a disgraceful failure of our legal system to meet the serious legal needs of most Americans, who are increasingly priced out of the market for legal services. In 70 to 98 percent of cases in America’s civil courts today, one or both parties are not represented by a lawyer. One report found that civil legal aid programs must turn away almost two-thirds of the people who seek their assistance in critical civil cases, despite research showing that in many such cases, access to legal help makes all the difference. In evictions, for example, two-thirds of tenants who go to court without a lawyer lose their homes, while two-thirds of those represented by an attorney are able to keep them. In complex areas of the law, legal help is essential to enable people to understand and defend their rights. But legal help has become so expensive — about $200 to $300 an hour on average and drastically higher at the largest law firms – that it’s unaffordable, not just for those struggling to make ends meet, but even for most middle-class Americans.

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